By Allen St. Pierre
In a completely unexpected move by the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice, a memo was issued back in Oct. 2014 indicating that Native American tribes are not specifically exempted from possibly reforming their cannabis laws to comport with state changes in cannabis laws.
The memo was not leaked to the media until mid December, and since then, over 40 Native American tribes have contacted NORML looking for information and/or counsel on how (or whether at all) to create lawful cannabis commerce in their respective nations.
Most of these tribes are located in states that have passed substantive cannabis law reforms, notably full legalization in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington State, but there has also been interest from tribes that are located in states that have largely legalized patient access to medical cannabis (i.e., Arizona, California, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, etc…).
Some tribes apparently got out ahead too early in publicly announcing plans for large-scale cultivation and retail sales, specifically the Poma tribe in Northern California that failed to gain the necessary local support from law enforcement and elected policy makers after declaring just days after the Justice Department memo was made public that they were committed to building a $10 million cannabis cultivation center.
There have already been legal seminars sponsored by cannabis-centric law firms like Seattle’s CannaLaw Group and New Mexico’s Blaze America. More pointedly, Kansas City-based FoxBarry Farms, a company that privately finances Native American commercial endeavors such as casinos, is currently exploring numerous options with many tribes and local/state governments about launching Native American cannabis cultivation and sales, as well as large-scale industrial hemp production and processing.
FoxBarry Farms told Reuters in February that they’ve committed $30 million for Native American cannabis endeavors, and The Huffington Post reported that over 100 tribes had contacted them looking to get into cannabis commerce in one form or another.
A number of different Native American-operated casinos have contacted NORML inquiring if we can host cannabis business and law related seminars that we’re looking into possibly convening later this year.
In meetings and discussions with federal and state revenue officials about the future of cannabis legalization, taxation and regulatory issues, NORML’s lobby staff now regularly hears a common and cautious lament from these quarters described by a single word — Leakage.
While taking no political position for or against cannabis legalization overall, these revenue bean counters are clearly concerned that Native American tribes are going to leap into cannabis cultivation, sales and by extension cannabis tourism, thereby cutting into their nascent cannabis taxation base.
Law enforcement, when asked about this potential new and legal source for adult cannabis use, claim that they’re concerned with tourists traveling to Native American lands and leaving these largely autonomous areas with otherwise illegal cannabis (in the 46 states without legalization, and loss of local and state taxes to the Native American tribe’s taxation in the four states that have abandoned cannabis prohibition) and public safety (as many cannabis consumers will visit Native American nations via automobile).
However, while some of these post-legalization situations on Native American lands may have a degree of legitimate government concern because of their unique status and relationship with various levels of American governments (federal and state), some Cannabis Industry experts at these legal seminars have opined that Native Americans could provide much needed banking and financial services currently denied under the still antiquated federal banking system when it comes to legal cannabis at the state level.
NORML embraces Native American tribes and their business partners in this unexpected but welcome effort to help put continued upward political pressure on the federal (and state) government to end cannabis prohibition nationally, once and for all.
Allen St. Pierre is the executive director of NORML in Washington, D.C., norml.org
*Indian hemp is the historical term employed by early American colonists to describe the cannabis products they observed to be consumed and used for numerous non-drug purposes such as for clothing, fuel and fiber.